By Velvet Belle Tree
When watching Murder on the Orient Express on PBS on Sunday, July 11, 2010, I felt that although the basic story was followed, many things had been changed, and for the worse. So I obtained a copy of the book to refresh my memory.
The show opened with a synoptic scene of an angry Hercule Poirot involved in a case with the French army culminating in the suicide of an officer. This episode is alluded to in the book without the emotional overtones, simply to explain why he is in Syria.
He then goes from Aleppo to Istanbul. In the show he, and two other characters, witness a Turkish woman being stoned by a mob as an adulteress. Not only is this incident not in the book, it is more appropriate to todayÕs Saudi Arabia than the Istanbul of the 1930s when the story takes place, a time when Turkey was in the midst of modernization and secularization.
The incident is significant in the show because later in the story Poirot shows no sympathy for the woman, claiming that she knew the rules of her society and was just paying the price she knew about — justice was being served.
In the show, the victim, Ratchett aka Cassetti has a good deal of cash with him, money that he is going to contribute to some fund, as if in an act of contrition. There is nothing like this in the book.
Another change, which is minor and would seem to be for dramatic impact, is that in the book Poirot is advised of the murder mid-morning when he has finished his breakfast in the dining car, but in the show his door is pounded on before breakfast while he is waxing his moustache. What bothered me about this was his reaction. Now, all fans of Hercule Poirot know how fussy he is, especially about his moustache, but they also know that heÕs charming. But here, when interrupted, he seemed really angry and was very nasty when refusing to open the door only doing so when those summoning him insisted.
This brings up one of the major changes in the show — PoirotÕs character. His charm is almost completely gone. The only time we see his little smile is when his eggs are proven to be the same size. ItÕs not only the charm thatÕs gone, itÕs his courtesy. When his friend, a director of the Wagon Lit company, gets him onto the full train, he shows no gratitude, no smile or little bow of thanks. But in the book, he is his usual charming, courteous self.
In the book, he interviews people in English, French and German, showing his erudition and desire to make each interviewee feel comfortable. This could have been done very well on TV using sub-titles but wasnÕt. At another time, his mental processes are shown to be too good. In the book, the fragment of paper found by the victim is shown to contain the words Òmember Daisy Armstrong.Ó In the show, all that can be seen is Òaisy Arms,Ó and from that he deduces that the victim is Cassetti, the man who kidnapped and killed little Daisy Armstrong, from which all other deductions follow.
Another major change is a character who is working with missionaries. In the book she is a quiet, gentle, rather mousy creature. In the show, she is very religious and rants that there are things that not even God can forgive. In the show, Poirot is shown as a devout Catholic, praying in his room holding a rosary. There is nothing about religion in the book and Poirot has never been depicted, in the books or other movie and TV adaptations as religious.
The other major change is the ending. The solution, of course, is the same: they all did it. In the book, Poirot simply lays before the passengers and the Wagon Lit director two solutions and asks the director to choose which to present to the Jugo-Slavian (spelling in the book) police. The first solution offered is the one that the passengers staged: an outsider using a conductorÕs uniform who somehow left the stuck train. The second solution, the one where they all did it. The director says the first one must be the truth, and Poirot says he retires from the case.
In the show he does not present the case quietly but raves and rants against the twelve passengers who have committed the murder. They have taken the law into their own hands, they have been judge and jury and executioners and are a menace to civilization. Strangely, he did not see anything wrong with the Turkish people taking the law into their own hands when they stoned the woman in Istanbul.
Finally, we see him walking towards the police carrying the conductorÕs uniform and then talking to them. We hear nothing, but it is obvious from his manner that he hates what he is doing, though we never learn why he is doing it.
Although the show on PBS followed the general story of Murder on the Orient Express, it was not Agatha Christie and the main character surely was not Hercule Poirot.